RCS vs Apps: a fight to the death?

Some experts believe RCS rich messaging could eventually replace the native app. Has anyone told the people who downloaded 113bn apps in 2018? Tim Green explores this existential mobile marketing question.

Virgin Trains is the first UK company to deploy RCS messaging

If you’re a mobile marketer, chances are you’ve been to a conference session about RCS (Rich Communication Services). These events are everywhere. RCS is the ‘new new’ thing. And marketers are very interested in the tech, the rollout and the overall potential of rich media messaging.

But have you ever actually received an RCS message? Probably not. In the UK, only Vodafone supports the ‘next-gen SMS’ channel. Unsurprisingly, Apple doesn’t support it at all. And, let’s face it, mobile marketers are the kind of people who use iPhones.

So RCS is – for now at least – classic ‘vapourware’. It’s something that might take off… at some point in the future… we’re not sure when. Still, uncertainty never stopped the hype cycle before. People are making big claims for RCS. And one of the boldest is this: RCS will be the death of apps.

Rich media messaging
The argument expounded is that RCS is rich media messaging. As such, it lets people send messages that include photos, videos, maps and more inside a chat session. This is great for end users – but potentially even better for enterprises. Think about what RCS could do for A2P (application-to-person) messaging. A brand could deliver all kinds of useful information to customers in a rich chat session. Add in vouchers and payment forms, and the proposition grows even more compelling.

In fact, a brand could achieve in a chat session what was previously only possible when a person downloaded a native app. This gets to the core of that ‘death of apps’ argument. Here’s an example: Virgin Trains is running a service to provide journey information to London Euston-bound passengers. 10 minutes before arriving, Virgin sends an RCS update to customers, who can tap it to reveal an array of rich travel information. For the user, it’s similar to the ‘browse and click’ in-app experience. But it happens entirely inside a chat session – with no need to download anything.

For RCS believers, this ‘no download’ factor is hugely significant. Nick Millward, VP Europe at messaging specialist mGage, says: “If we can get to the point where most people have a native RCS app on their phones, it will offer a simplified process of engaging. It will be so much easier than downloading an app. I think brands get that. They’re excited about the fact that RCS can be a universal channel.”

And there’s another important RCS feature: it’s two-way. Unlike SMS, RCS can support conversation. A user can start a dialogue with an AI-powered bot – or a live human agent – entirely inside the chat session. This has the potential to transform customer care. That could work even for brands that already have popular native apps argues Željko Bak, program manager at message provider Infobip.

“Take banking apps,” he says. “Most people use them, and they are great for things like checking a balance or sending a payment. But when you want to do something more complex, you generally need to have a conversation about it. You can’t really do this inside an app. So I can see banks using RCS sessions for these kinds of use cases.”

Use cases
Even those who don’t entirely buy in to the RCS hype agree with this argument. Paul Swaddle is co-founder of Pocket App, whose business is centred on native app development. He says: “There are obviously some very good use cases for RCS. If a brand wants to reschedule a delivery, for example, it would make perfect sense to send a rich message with all the options inside it. That would be a better choice than using plain SMS or expecting someone to download a native app.”

Similarly, there’s a strong case for using RCS to support one-off events. “Rich messaging could work very well for a charity like Red Nose Day, where it might be a push to get people to download an app,” says Nick Millward. “These types of charities typically use SMS at the moment. With RCS, they could use images and videos to improve donations, which they could offer by carrier billing inside the message session.”

It sounds good. But, as Pocket App’s Swaddle makes clear, these are mostly hypothetical scenarios. “People talk about the ubiquity of RCS,” he says. “But it’s not ubiquitous. The mobile network operators (MNOs) don’t seem to be able to agree on a business model for it, which is why the rollout has been so patchy. Apple’s non-participation is a big barrier too, of course.”

These are familiar arguments. And they are hard to refute – though the mobile operators’ trade body, the GSMA, does its best. It confidently predicts that 86 per cent of smartphones will be RCS-enabled by 2020. It says 65 operators had launched RCS in 46 countries by the end of 2018, with 40 more planned this year.

Still, the scepticism remains. Doubters refer to the fact that the world’s MNOs first proposed RCS in 2007, and then spent many years failing to launch it. It took the participation of Google (which acquired and relaunched the underlying RCS tech in 2015) to reboot the whole process.

Infobip’s Bak understands the reservations, but believes that, second time around, RCS will deliver. “I have worked inside those telcos,” he says. “I’ve seen the obstacles, and I honestly believe they don’t exist any more. The MNOs want this to happen. Yes, they could move faster, but I think they will get there in the end.”

App economy
All this presupposes that people are tiring of apps, and the faff of downloading them. Is this true? Well, yes and no. On one level, the app economy has never been in such rude health. App market watcher App Annie says downloads across iOS and Google Play hit 113bn in 2018, up 10 per cent on 2017. People are spending more time than ever before using them, too. In 2018, the average smartphone user in the US spent nearly three hours each day in apps – 20 per cent more than in 2016.

On the flip side, people might be downloading more and more apps, but they only ever use a handful. App Annie reckons they use around 30 on a monthly basis, and just nine on a typical day.

Self evidently, only a few brands can hope to make it into this select group. This, say RCS supporters, is where rich messaging can score. In short, it can give every brand a shot at engagement, not just those with huge existing audiences.

This might explain why Cabify, a Mexican ride-sharing company, teamed up with Infobip and Google for an RCS experiment. Its service lets Cabify drivers send a video confirmation, a Google Map, a high-resolution photo of the car and a discount QR code inside an RCS message. They can also interact directly with the passenger in the session.

Time will tell how successful this is, but there’s a strong argument that removing the ‘friction’ of the app download can make it easier for challengers like Cabify to compete with monolithic incumbents such as Uber.

That said, even Uber is exploring the potential of RCS. It may have the advantage of millions of regular app users, but it has run three trials with Infobip. Bak says: “Uber might have a successful app, but it just wants to know what works best for its users. If it’s rich messaging, it needs to know that.”

Binary choice
These experiments might make it sound as though there’s a binary choice for mobile marketers between expensive native apps and unproven RCS messaging – not so. There are still options such as QR codes and wallet. And in the last two years Google has rolled out two products designed to blur the line between web and app.

First came progressive web apps (PWAs). These let users pin a URL to their home screen and open it in a browser. But PWAs comprise an ‘app shell’, so they behave more like native apps than websites. Then came Android Instant Apps. These let users click a link and run an app immediately with no need to download or even visit the Play Store. Instant Apps have yet to change the app world, but there are a growing family of them: New York Times Crossword, Red Bull TV and Skyscanner, to name three.

Clearly, there are a lot to channels for brands to choose from. Ultimately, of course, they will follow their customers. Will that lead them towards RCS? It’s far too early to say. The questions around operator support, Apple participation and A2P pricing models have yet to be ironed out. But even when they are, the app habit will be hard to break.

“I just think apps can deliver a rich brand experience that the web and RCS can’t match,” says Pocket App’s Swaddle. “It’s like books. There’s more to a book than its contents. There’s the cover and the paper stock and so on. History shows that new channels usually coexist with the old ones. Cinema didn’t kill theatre and TV didn’t kill cinema. In the end, I think there has to be a mix. Apps aren’t going away.”

This article first appeared in the February 2019 print edition of Mobile Marketing. You can read the complete issue online here.